Rivers and other surface water bodies

Relevant facts at the national level

  • Rivers have a fundamental role of rivers in the economy and ecology of Bangladesh. Rivers are of crucial importance in counteracting adverse effects of climate change such as submergence and salinity intrusion.
  • While diminished flow due to diversionary structures built by India is a major reason for the decay of Bangladesh rivers, Bangladesh’s own domestic policies and mistreatment have aggravated the process.
  • Bangladesh has been following the Cordon Approach to rivers, aimed at sealing off floodplains from adjoining rivers through unbroken embankments. However, the Cordon Approach has not proved successful and rather has had adverse effects on flooding, drainage, soil quality, sanitation, preservation of fresh water fish stock, functioning of waterways, temperature balance, etc.
  • Pollution is killing Bangladesh’s rivers and water bodies and of the country.
  • Runoff from chemical fertilizer and pesticides is destroying the open capture fish stock of the country.
  • Various types of organic waste continue to be a major source of river pollution.
  • Industrial effluent and waste have now become the biggest threat to Bangladesh’s rivers. Industrial pollution has almost killed off rivers around the Dhaka city and is aggravating the problem of water supply to the dwellers of the city.
  • Encroachment is the other serious threat to Bangladesh rivers, and diminished flow and the Cordon Approach are making encroachment easier.
  • Burgeoning population, lack of arable land, pressure for subsistence, lack of awareness about the necessity of preservation of rivers, greed, unequal power structure, administrative corruption, etc. are also contributing to the encroachment process.
  • Diminished flow, Cordon Approach, pollution, encroachment, and general lack of care all causing Bangladesh rivers to die.
  • Other surface water bodies, such as Beels, Jheels, Haors, Baors, Khals, etc. are also facing the same problems of diminished flow, pollution, encroachment, and various obstructions due to projects inspired by the Cordon Approach, which in particular has facilitated filling up of hundreds of thousands of ponds across the country.
  • The Cordon Approach projects have killed the Baral river and are destroying the fabled Chalaan Beel.
  • The Cordon Approach and encroachment have given rise to the new problem of waterlogging.
  • Through effort of BAPA and other pro-environment organizations and activists, awareness about the plight of rivers and the necessity of protecting them has increased.
  • BAPA has formed Jatiyo Nodi Rokkha Andolon (JNRA), comprising river activists from all over the country, and BAPA and JNRA have built up river and “Beel” saving movements in various parts of the country.
  • Media has taken particular interest in river saving efforts.
  • The government has also taken some initiatives to remove river encroaching structures, curb river pollution, and recover lost Khals.
  • The government has taken the initiative of demarcating the boundaries of rivers in order to prevent future encroachment.
  • Even the judiciary has taken interest in protecting the rivers and other surface water bodies.
  • Use of water sealed sanitary latrines is picking up in rural areas in order to prevent pollution by human waste.

BEN’s recommendation at the national level regarding rivers

  1. Bangladesh has to abandon the Cordon approach and adopt the Open Approach to rivers and uses the Open Approach to ensure river flow throughout the year;
  2. Bangladesh needs to take steps to reduce dependence on chemical fertilizer and pesticides by adopting various methods of their more efficient use, such as Granular System of Fertilizer Application (GSFA), Integrated Plant Nutrition Management (IPNM) and Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and by promoting organic agriculture;
  3. Bangladesh should take urgent steps to stop industrial pollution of rivers and other water bodies by forcing all industrial enterprises install Effluent Treatment Facility (ETF);
  4. The government needs to take vigorous steps to free rivers, Khals, and other water bodies from encroachment;
  5. While demarcating the boundaries of rivers, the government has to go by the width that rivers attained during their historic peak summer flows and not by the width they have during the lean season;
  6. The government should erect appropriate structures to secure and make the river boundaries permanent, in order to minimize future encroachment, making sure that the design of these structures allow free flow of water between rivers and adjoining floodplains;
  7. The government needs to enact and enforce laws forcing polluters to pay, in addition to heavy penalties, for the cost of cleaning and encroachers pay for the cost of demolition;
  8. The government has to take special care to protect the Beels, Haors, and Baors, to reserve the ecology and biodiversity of the areas where these are located, to make them serve as reservoirs for drinking water (with minor treatment like sedimentation with coagulation followed by disinfection), and to allow them continue to serve as sanctuaries for guest birds in winter;
  9. The government should accept the recommendations of the Chalan Beel Rokkha Andolon (CBRA) and takes immediate steps to free up Baral river and engages in a sustained effort to save this largest Beel of the country;
  10. The government should take particular measures to preserve the health and beauty of Hakaluki Beel and other Beels of the Bhati area;
  11. The government has to take prompt steps to remove the river obstructing structures that have caused permanent water-logging in some parts of south-western part of the country;
  12. Bangladesh should include in school curriculum the topic of rivers in order to make its future generations aware about the role of rivers in Bangladesh economy, ecology, and society and develop in them respect for rivers;
  13. The government should encourage consolidation of rural dwellings in order for the country to cope better with floods, economize on scarce arable land, and to provide various services better;
  14. The government needs to consider the use of water hyacinth for phytoremediation of waste water and removal of heavy metals such as Cu, Cd, Cr, and Pd; the use of activated palm ash for removal of lead from water; and the use of chemical oxidation for treatment of wastewater containing diazinon;
  15. Bangladesh should campaign for use of water sealed sanitary latrines for ensuring proper sanitation in rural areas is further intensified and a target for full coverage by 2004 is achieved and discharge of untreated urban sewage is stopped;
  16. The citizens, media, judiciary, and all sections of the society should become more involved in the river movement and various river saving efforts.

Relevant facts at the regional level

  • While rivers face the risk of destabilization by climate change, they can also play a very important role in protecting the region from the impact of climate change.
  • Melting of Himalayan glaciers may render the rivers dry in winter while excessive flooding in summer may aggravate floods.
  • Rise in elevation and accretion of land through sedimentation caused by river flow is the most important protection that low lying coastal lands of the subcontinent have against the threat of submergence due to rising sea level.
  • The “Cordon Approach” to rivers currently followed by countries of the region facilitates the destabilization of rivers caused by climate change and weakens the protection against submergence by hindering the process of sedimentation.
  • The “Cordon Approach” to rivers leads to diversionary and other large scale river intervention projects and thus creates tensions among co-riparian countries.
  • By contrast, the “Open Approach” to rivers helps to protect rivers against destabilization by mitigating flooding in summer and preserving water for winter.
  • By leaving the sedimentation process unhindered, the Open Approach helps to benefit from this process as a protection against submergence.
  • A switch from the “Cordon Approach” to the “Open Approach” can dissuade countries from diversionary and other large scale river intervention projects and thus can convert the rivers into bonds of friendship rather than sources of rivalry and tension.
  • Being the lower riparian country, and with the catchment basins of major rivers of Bangladesh lying mostly in her neighboring countries, Bangladesh needs cooperation of upper riparian countries in keeping the rivers stable and preserving their water and sedimentation flows.
  • Diversionary structures built by India have diminished significantly the low of Bangladesh rivers, leading to several ecological and environmental consequences.
  • A basin-wide approach is necessary to harness and benefit from the water resources of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna region comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal.
  • Cross-boundary river pollution problem has become serious, with pollution caused by upper riparian countries flowing into lower riparian countries.
  • In addition to organic waste, inorganic waste, including mining waste, often including toxic and radio-active elements, has become a major source of cross-boundary river pollution, particularly in the north-eastern part of Bangladesh, where mining in Meghalaya is causing river flows into greater Sylhet district to be dangerously polluted and similarly pollution in Tripura is causing river flows in greater Comilla to be dangerously polluted.
  • Regional cooperation is necessary to deal with such cross-boundary river pollution.
  • In addition to cooperation at the government level, cooperation at the level of people and civil society is necessary for proper resolution of river related conflicts.

BEN’s recommendation at the regional level

  1. Bangladesh should advocate the adoption of the Open Approach to rivers and abandonment of the current Cordon Approach by all countries of the region;
  2. Bangladesh should advocate the basin-wide approach in management and use of the regional rivers;
  3. Bangladesh has to oppose resolutely all diversionary river intervention projects undertaken by any of the upper riparian countries;
  4. Bangladesh needs to advocate decommissioning of all diversionary river intervention projects that have been already implemented, including the Farakka barrage on the Ganges and the Gozaldoba barrage on the Teesta;
  5. Bangladesh should demand that cross-season river flow stabilization projects, such as the proposed Tipaimukh dam, cannot be undertaken on an unilateral basis and that all such projects have to be agreed jointly and put under joint jurisdiction, and furthermore there has to be guarantee that such projects will not be used for diversion purposes in future;
  6. Bangladesh has to raise the river pollution issue in various bilateral and regional forums and ensures that her river flows are unaffected by pollution by upper riparian countries.
  7. River activists of Bangladesh have to take steps to establish more civil society contacts among river activists of different countries of the region and try to develop a united regional civil society movement in support of the Open Approach to rivers and against the current Cordon Approach.